Ginger Murchison - SPRING 2006 FEATURE  



The Cortland Review

William Palmer
An interview and reading with William Palmer. Grace Cavalieri hosts this special one-hour program.

Charles Harper Webb
  "The Pleasure of Their Company: Voice and Poetry," an essay on the personal in the poem.

Charles Harper Webb
  5 New poems

Miles A. Coon
  A review of Desire Path, four chapbook-length collections by Myrna Goodman, Maxine Silverman, Meredith Trede and Jennifer Wallace, with a foreword by Thomas Lux.

Tony Hoagland
  "To Tell the Truth: Tony Hoagland Through Three Collections of Poems,"
a review by Ginger Murchison

Ginger Murchison

Ginger Murchison is Associate Director of POETRY at TECH at Georgia Tech in Atlanta and Managing Editor of The Cortland Review. Her poems are published in magazines and journals, including Atlanta Review, Terminus, and more than a dozen anthologies, including The Gift of Experience: Atlanta Review, 10th Anniversary Anthology. Married and the mother of two, she divides her time between Atlanta and Sanibel Island, Florida.

Donkey Gospel
Graywolf Press (Feb 1998)
Paper, 80 pages
List Price: $14.00  buy this book

What Narcissism Means to Me
Graywolf Press (Nov 2003)
Paper, 96 pages
List Price: $14.00  buy this book

Hard Rain
Hollyridge Press (Oct 2005)
Paper 48 pages
List Price $10.00  buy this book


To Tell The Truth: Tony Hoagland Through Three Collections of Poems    

Tony Hoagland's Donkey Gospel, winner of the James Laughlin Award, was the incentive or gift (depending on your perspective) in 1998 for joining The Academy of American Poets, and full of raucous surprise, it offered an exhilarating ride on the perspective of the smart aleck in the back of the room that the other guys called "Dickhead." Such a perspective gives Hoagland plenty of room to take sharp aim at a society hung up on its pop culture, his voice being "a noise among the noises / coming from the shadows," and if the distance between Hoagland and his subjects doesn't imply innocence, at least it doesn't imply complicity. In "Reading Moby Dick at 30,000 Feet," the poet's attention span skitters

from the in-flight movie
to the stewardess's pantyline,
then back to my book

where men throw harpoons at something
much bigger and probably
better than themselves.

Insecurity deepens Donkey Gospel's selections, and Hoagland's naiveté—here more lonely dissociation than criticism—makes them endearing: "We don't notice we are young;" we "weren't sure our lives were worth surviving," and though, in 1998, well beyond the "universe of puberty," Hoagland remains unsure whether to "renounce the whole world / or fall in love with it forever," and he

lean[s] back into the upholsetered interval
between Muzak and lunch,
a little bored, a little old and strange.

There is, however, absolutely no mistaking Donkey Gospel's take-no-prisoners, naked truthfulness. "Until we say the truth, there can be no tenderness," Hoagland says in "Adam and Eve," and the extraordinary tenderness becomes apparent when, despite all he has found to condemn us for, he lets us off the hook:

I can almost hear the future whisper
to the past: it says this is not a test
and everybody passes.

Jump ahead to 2003's What Narcissism Means to Me and experience a different Tony Hoagland. This book has a larger landscape and a deeper and more complex one. Still playful, still the wry wit, still the unerring finger-pointer, and still at the moral center of his poems, Hoagland isn't in the back of the room anymore; he has moved in closer and takes his place in the world.

What Narcissism Means to Me opens with the first section titled "America" and, in the poem "Commercial for a Summer Night," we are watching people outside on their front porch watching TV and commenting so that the reader's view of the world comes third hand, "interpretation. . . brushing its varnish over everything," comically illustrated again when "Russ said that Harold Bloom said / that Nietzsche said. . . ." They are watching not the movie but

                           . . . a preview for a movie

     about a movie star who is
                            having a movie made about her

lines in which the passive voice does its share of work. In the next poem, "America," a student "says that America is for him a maximum security prison," that he feels "Buried alive, captured and suffocated in the folds / Of the thick satin quilt of America," and suddenly the world is extremely close, so close that Hoagland, the poem's I admits "I am asleep in America, too," and the reader, the poem's you, is reminded that

Even while others are drowning underneath you
And you see their faces twisting in the surface of the waters

And yet it seems to be your own hand
Which turns the volume higher.

Hoagland is admittedly as trapped as his student, and he has caught his reader by the scruff of the neck and dragged him in, too. Again, that "we" in the section's fourth poem ,"The Change," is Hoagland, his poems' characters, and us inside the poems. "We were just walking past. . . / and got sucked in. . . and started to care, . . ." The reader is close enough to know that the distance between Hoagland and his subjects and Hoagland and his feelings is no longer "roughly the same as the mileage from Seattle to New York." The reader is "close enough to history to "smell its breath. . . [to] reach your hand out / and touch it on its flank." Here Hoagland can't ignore "the faces twisting in the surface of the waters;" he isn't letting the reader ignore them either, and the mood decidedly deepens and saddens at the realization that none of us can any longer pretend anything in the world is irrelevant.

Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone,
we were there,

and when we went to put it back where it belonged,
it was past us
and we were changed.

Hoagland is done with simply leaning against the porch-post watching the watchers, and the closer he gets to the phenomena of dissatisfaction in the book's second section, "Social Life," the closer he gets to the truth, his and ours, and the more exacerbated his loneliness—a different kind of distance—and even for someone who considers himself an 'outsider,' certainly not a comfortable one:

. . .I prefer the feeling of going away, going away
stretching out my distance from the voices and the lights
until the tether breaks and I

am in the wild sweet dark.

That "dark" is where we hide to avoid the truth, but from this point on in Narcissism, the dark is anything but "wild and sweet," and there is no more "going away" from "the thoughts now / chewing on the underside / of other thoughts," even, as in "Reasons to Survive November," thoughts on suicide:

I know there are some people out there
who think I am supposed to end up
                           in a room by myself

with a gun and a bottle full of hate,
a locked door and my slack mouth open
like a disconnected phone.

With a relentless light on the dark, Hoagland shows us what it takes to survive, hardly what we expect from the Hoagland of Donkey Gospel, our own mouths stunned open as they are by that slack-mouth image. But hatred spawned by the truth strengthens Hoagland and pushes him toward the guilty pleasure of knowing that "my survival is their failure," a pleasure that perhaps inspires his next poem, "Phone Call," expressing what he calls "the past of the future." Hoagland is no victim.

Although he uses the word "dark" five times in one poem in the section called "Blues," we are ready to believe he mood is lightening up in "Suicide Song," when Hoagland says, "dying, you know, shows a serious ingratitude, // and anyway, who has clothes nice enough to be caught dead in?" But the reader has been set up, and just as we begin to think it is OK to laugh again, the other shoe drops:

You stay alive, you stupid asshole
Because you haven't been excused,

You haven't finished though it takes a mulish stubbornness
To chew this food.

It is a stone, it is an inconvenience, it is an innocence,
And I turn against it like a record

Turns against the needle
That makes it play.

Laughter won't come on caught breath, and what a very clever irony it is that the poems in Narcissism reveal the truth "beneath the surface of the water" where pain and hate twist in his own reflection. You have to read these poems slower; you have to take more time between poems; you need time to understand this kind of anger, this kind of hurt. Hoagland isn't talking anymore about the idiotic and rapacious if somewhat harmless appetite for pop culture; he is deeper into the poems and deeper into himself than ever before. The people in Hoagland's poems (most of them) feed on lies...stories we have perpetuated to excuse our inhumanity:

and it is a lonely piece of work

trying to turn the stories back into horror,
but somebody has got to do it.

Hoagland has obliterated the "wild sweet dark." With the stiff sarcasm of "You know what I'm talking about. Bawhoop, awhoop," from the radio, Hoagland, "touching the sores inside [his] mouth / with the tip of [his] tongue," is once again outside on the porch swing as he opens Narcissism's fourth and final section, where life's complexity, we learn, "had nothing to do with being good, or smart, or choosing right / It had to do with being lucky." Hoagland has forced us to see beneath the surface, but now we are back to breathing easier, glad at our "Luck" to be back on that porch: it is, after all, "easier to watch than to live."

The titles in "Luck" seem to promise a respite: "Spring Lemonade," "Narcissus Lullaby," "Windchime," "Physiology of kisses," "The Grammar of Sparrows," and in the final poem, "The Time Wars," Hoagland admits he doesn't want a war with his enemies, with his critics, or with time.

                      . . . Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal
'Windy day. I am the hare, far ahead of my critics, the hounds.'

Something endearing about the mixture of weather report and vanity.
Something lonely about this image of success.

What Narcissism Means to Me is Hoagland's personal, literary, and psychological decision, and he emerges much less lonely and not at all weak. In fact, in Narcissism's final poem, " Hoagland "burst[s] out laughing," a last laugh that is so genuine, so sincere and so resilient, it restores us, stands us back on our feet, and sharing the truth with Hoagland, we feel smarter, and stronger, and less lonely, too.

Fast forward past Narcissism to 2005 and Hollyridge Press's release of Hard Rain, twenty-one new Hoagland poems—the poem "Fire" the single repeat. The amusement-park-entrance cover- photo screams "Pleasure"—as if we know what it is—as brilliant and natural a transition from Narcissism as is conceivable. With the same willingness to risk being turned upside down and inside out, we line up with the rest of the thrill-seekers to find out.

Just as "America" was the theme on which Narcissism opened, Hard Rain starts, too, with a metaphoric America in a poem titled, "Foodcourt," focusing on the amalgam of "Jimmy's Wok and Roll American-Chinese Gourmet Emporium," where "the food smells funny" and "everything['s] / all chopped up and stirred together in the big steel pan."

With the "cloud of steam rising from the bean sprouts and shredded cabbage, Hoagland serves up what appeases America's appetite for pleasure: Sheila, Mike and Ryan draw up to the TV to watch Franklin Merriwether open, pour, and finally taste the "Forty-Year Old Wine." While none of them is ever likely to know that pleasure, they

                                all grow silent
to watch the smallest muscles of Franklin's face
flicker with joy or disapproval
at the moment the wine steps onto his tongue
like a pilgrim entering the holy city
where the story ends
and the judgment begins.

Hard Rain is another roller-coaster ride through every conceivable pleasure from succulence to abundance to indulgence to opulence to corpulence to even the sick pleasure of petulance, dominance, and violence, and Hoagland tells us his job is "mostly holding steady / right between the lines." He is neither Jimmy of the "Wok and Roll American-Chinese Gourmet Emporium" nor Franklin Merriwether, of the "Forty-Year Old Wine," but "all of [his] imagination / goes to getting here and there connected," and with poems wide enough to get a cement truck inside, he has

a four-lane highway to drive down the middle of,
and a pair of heavy rubber boots,
and a black rectangular lever just in front of the stick shift.

And the Tony Hoagland of Donkey Gospel has just enough wiseacre left to "wonder what that one does." It's a warning to buckle our seat belts. "Convenience can turn into a kind of trouble [we] never wanted." He predicts we'll take into the grave the very thing that kills us. We regret how we made love, and the "Haves do not appear to be laughing as they eat their sushi carved from the lives of the Have-nots." Every step we take, says Hoagland "has a slender string attached, and Operation Enduring Freedom" and "Operation Infinite / Self-Indulgence" can lead only to "Operation Self-Examination,"

which is a very painful operation
performed without anesthesia
in a naked room full of shadows and light.

American culture, that spin we're in, teaches us to believe "there's nothing / we can't pluck the stinger from," but it forgets to teach us that pleasure, at least that gleaned from neon lights or a wild ride, is, at best, a lie--the cheap thrill our culture is addicted to, and out of which nothing lasting or satisfying comes. Here are poems with an irresistible smart wit, poems that face every perception about who we are and what is going on here, poems that tell the ultimate truth: It's a Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall.


© 2006 The Cortland Review